Chapter Twenty-Seven. A Plain Wooden Box

The midday Altaran sun was warm, though a gusting breeze sometimes whipped Rand’s cloak. They had been on the hilltop for two hours, now. A great mass of dark clouds creeping down from the north above blue-gray haze spoke of rain to come, and a cooling. Andor lay only a few miles in that direction across low. forested hills of oak and pine, leatherleaf and sourgum. That border had seen countless generations of cattle raids going in both directions. Was Elayne watching it rain in Caemlyn? That lay a good hundred and fifty leagues east, too far for her to be more than a faint presence in the back of his head. Aviendha, in Arad Doman, was fainter still. He had not considered that the Wise Ones would take her along. Still, she would be safe among tens of thousands of Aiel, as safe as Elayne behind Caem-lyn’s walls. Tai’daishar stamped a hoof and tossed his head, eager to be moving. Rand patted the big black’s neck. The stallion could reach the border in under an hour, but their way was west today. A short way west in just a short while, now.

He had to impress at today’s meeting, and he had chosen his garb with care. The Crown of Swords sat on his head for more reason than making an impression, though. Half the small swords nestled among the wide band of laurel leaves pointed down, making it uncomfortable to wear, giving constant reminders of its weight, in gold and in responsibility. A small chip in one of those laurel leaves dug at his temple to remind him of the battle against the Seanchan where it had been made. A battle lost when he could not afford to lose. His dark green silk coat was embroidered in gold on the sleeves, shoulders and high collar, a gold-inlaid buckle in the shape of a dragon fastened his sword-belt, and he had the Dragon Scepter in hand, a two-foot length of spearhead with a long green-and-white tassel below the polished steel point. If the Daughter of the Nine Moons recognized it for part of a Seanchan spear, she must also see the dragons that Maidens had carved winding around the remaining haft. Today, he wore no gloves. The golden-maned dragonheads on the backs of his hands glittered metallically in the sun. However high she stood among the Seanchan, she would know whom she faced.

A fool. Lews Therin’s wild laughter echoed inside his head. A fool to walk Into a trap. Rand ignored the madman. It might be a trap, but he was ready to spring it if it was. It was worth the risk. He needed this truce. He could crush the Seanchan, but at what cost in blood, and in time he might not have? He glanced north again. The sky above Andor was clear except for a few high white clouds, drifting wisps. The Last Battle was coming. He had to take the risk.

Min, toying with the reins of her gray mare nearby, was feeling smug, and that irritated him. She had inveigled a promise from him in a weak moment and refused to release him. He could just break it. He should break it. As if she had heard his thoughts, she looked at him. Her face, surrounded by dark shoulder-length ringlets, was smooth, but the bond suddenly carried suspicion and hints of anger. She seemed to be trying to suppress both, yet she adjusted the cuffs of her ornately embroidered red coat the way she did when checking her knives. Of course, she would not use one of her blades on him. Of course not.

A woman’s love can be violent. Lews Therin murmured. Sometimes they hurt a man worse than they think they have, worse than they mean to. Sometimes, they’re even sorry afterwards. He sounded sane for the moment, but Rand shoved the voice down.

“You should let us scout farther out, Rand al’Thor,” Nandera said. She and the two dozen other Maidens on the sparsely wooded hilltop wore their black veils up. Some had their bows in hand and arrows nocked. The rest of the Maidens were among the trees well out from the hill, keeping watch against unpleasant surprises. “The land is clear all the way to the manor house, but this still smells of a trap to me.” There had been a time when words like “manor” and “house” sounded awkward on her tongue. She had been a long time in the wetlands now, though.

“Nandera speaks truth.” Alivia muttered sullenly, heeling her roan gelding closer. Apparently the golden-haired woman still resented the fact that she would not be going with him, but her reaction to hearing her native accents in Tear made that impossible. She admitted having been shaken, but claimed it had been the surprise of the thing. He could not chance it, though. “You cannot trust any of the High Blood. especially not a daughter of the Empress, may she-” Her mouth snapped shut, and she smoothed her dark blue skirts unnecessarily, grimacing at what she had almost said. He trusted her, literally with his life, but she had too many deep-buried instincts to risk putting her face-to-face with the woman he was going to meet. The bond carried anger with no effort to suppress it, now. Min disliked seeing Alivia near him.

“It smells of a trap to me. too,” Bashere said, easing his sinuously curved sword in its scabbard. He was plainly clad, in burnished helmet and breastplate, his gray silk coat alone marking him out from the eighty-one Saldaean lancers arrayed around the hilltop. His thick. down-curved mustaches almost bristled behind the face-bars of his helmet. “I’d give ten thousand crowns to know how many soldiers she has out there. And how many damane. This Daughter of the Nine Moons is the heir to their throne, man.” He had been shocked when Alivia revealed that. No one in Ebou Dar had mentioned it to him, as if it were of no importance. “They may claim their control ends far south of here, but you can wager she has at least a small army to see to her safety.”

“And if our scouts find this army,” Rand replied calmly, “can we be sure they won’t be seen?” Nandera made a scornful sound. “Best not to assume you’re the only one with eyes.” he told her. “If they think we’re planning to attack them or kidnap the woman, everything falls apart.” Maybe that was why they had kept their secret. The Imperial heir would be a more tempting target for a kidnapping than a mere high-ranking noblewoman. “You just keep watch to make sure they don’t catch us by surprise. If it all goes wrong, Bashere, you know what to do. Besides, she may have an army, but so do I. and not so small.” Bashere had to nod at that.

Aside from the Saldaeans and the Maidens, the hilltop was crowded with Asha’man and Aes Sedai and Warders, better than twenty-five all told, and as formidable a group as any small army. They mingled with surprising ease, and few outward signs of tension. Oh, Toveine, a short, coppery-skinned Red, was scowling at Logain, but Gabrelle, a dusky Brown with sooty green eyes, was talking with him quite companionabiy, perhaps even coquettishly. That might have been the reason for Toveine’s scowl, though disapproval seemed more likely than jealousy. Adrielle and Kurin each had an arm around the other’s waist, though she was tall enough to overtop the Domani Asha’man, and beautiful where he was plain and had gray at his temples. Not to mention that he had bonded the Gray against her will. Beldeine, new enough to the shawl that she simply looked like any young Saldaean woman with slightly tilted brown eyes, reached out every now and then to touch Manfor. and he smiled at her whenever she did. Her bonding of him had been a shock, but apparently the yellow-haired man had been more than willing. Neither had asked Rand his opinion before the bonding.

Strangest of all perhaps were Jenare, pale and sturdy in a gray riding dress embroidered with red on the skirts, and Kajima, a clerkish fellow in his middle years who wore his hair like Narishma, in two braids with silver bells at the ends. She laughed at something Kajima said, and murmured something that made him laugh in turn. A Red joking with a man who could channel! Maybe Taim had effected a change for the better, whatever he had intended. And maybe Rand al’Thor was living in a dream, too. Aes Sedai were famous for their dissembling. But could a Red dissemble that far?

Not everyone felt agreeable today. Ayako’s eyes seemed almost black as she glared at Rand, but then, considering what happened to a Warder when his Aes Sedai died, the dark-complected little White had reason to fear Sandomere going into possible danger. The Asha’man bond differed from the Warder bond in some respects, but in others it was identical, and no one yet knew the effects of an Asha’man’s death on the woman he had bonded. Elza was frowning at Rand, too, one hand on the shoulder of her tall, lean Warder Fearil as if she were gripping a guard dog’s collar and thinking of loosing him. Not against Rand, certainly, but he worried for anyone she thought might be threatening him. He had given her orders about that, and her oath should see them obeyed, yet Aes Sedai could find loopholes in almost anything.

Merise was speaking firmly to Narishma, with her other two Warders sitting their horses a little way off. There was no mistaking the way the stern-faced woman gestured as she spoke, leaning close to him so she could speak in a low voice. She was instructing him about something. Rand disliked that in the circumstances, yet there seemed little he could do. Merise had sworn no oaths, and she would ignore him when it came to one of her Warders. Or much of anything else, for that matter.

Cadsuane was watching Rand, too. She and Nynaeve were wearing all of their ter’angreal jewelry. Nynaeve was making a good try at Aes Sedai calm. She seemed to practice that a great deal since sending Lan wherever she had sent him. Half the hilltop separated her plump brown mare from Cadsuane’s bay. of course. Nynaeve would never admit it. but Cadsuane intimidated her.

Logain rode up between Rand and Bashere, his black gelding prancing. The horse was almost the exact shade of his coat and cloak. “The sun is almost straight overhead.” he said. “Time we go down?” There was only a mere hint of question in that. The man chafed at taking orders. He did not wait on a reply. “Sandomere!” he called loudly. “Narishma!”

Merise held Narishma by his sleeve for another moment of instructions before letting him ride over, which made Logain scowl. Sun-dark Narishma with his dark, belled braids looked years younger than Rand, though he was a few years older in truth. Sitting his dun as straight as a sword, he nodded to Logain as to an equal, producing another scowl. Sandomere spoke a quiet word to Ayako before mounting his dapple, and she touched his thigh once he was in the saddle. Wrinkled, with receding hair and a gray-streaked beard trimmed to a point and oiled, he made her appear youthful rather than ageless. He wore the red-and-gold dragon on his high black collar, now, as well as the silver sword. Every Asha’man on the hill did, even Manfor. He had only recently been raised to Dedicated, but he had been one of the first to come to the Black Tower, before there was a Black Tower. Most of the men who had begun with him were dead. Even Logain had not denied he deserved it.

Logain had enough sense not to call Cadsuane or Nynaeve, but they rode to join Rand anyway, placing themselves to either side of him, each briefly eyeing him, faces so smooth they might have been thinking anything. Their eyes met. and Nynaeve looked away quickly. Cadsuane gave a faint snort. And Min came. too. His “one more” to balance the honors. A man should never give promises in bed. He opened his mouth, and she arched an eyebrow, looking at him very directly. The bond felt full of… something dangerous.

“You stay behind me once we get there,” he told her, not at all what he had intended to say.

Danger faded to what he had come to recognize as love. There was wry amusement in the bond, too, for some reason. “I will if I want to, you wool-headed sheepherder,” she said with more than a little asperity, just as il the bond would not tell him her true feelings. Hard as those might be to decipher.

“If we’re going to do this fool thing, let’s get it done with,” Cadsuane said firmly, and heeled her dark bay down the hill.

A short distance from the hill, farms began to appear along a meandering dirt road through the forest, hard-packed by long years of use but still carrying a slick of mud from the last rainfall. The chimneys of thatched stone houses smoked with the midday meal-cooking. Sometimes girls and women sat out in the sun at their spinning wheels. Men in rough coats walked in the stone-walled fields checking their sprouting crops amid boys hoeing weeds. The pastures held brown-and-white cattle or black-tailed sheep, usually watched by a boy or two with bows or slings. There were wolves in these forests, and leopards and other things that enjoyed the taste of beef and mutton. Some people shaded their eyes to peer at the passersby, doubtless wondering who these finely dressed folk were who had come to visit the Lady Deirdru. Surely there could be no other reason for their presence, heading toward the manor house and so far from anywhere important. No one seemed agitated or frightened, though, just going about their day’s work. Rumors of an army in the region surely would have upset them, and rumors of that sort spread like wildfire. Strange. The Seanchan could not Travel and arrive without news speeding ahead of them. It was very strange.

He felt Logain and the other two men seize saidin, filling themselves with it. Logain held almost as much as he could have himself, Narishma and Sandomere somewhat less. They were the strongest among the other Asha’man, though, and both had been at Dumai’s Wells. Logain had proven he could handle himself in other places, other battles. If this was a trap, they would be ready, and the other side would never know it until too late. Rand did not reach for the Source. He could feel Lews Therin lurking in his head. This was no time to give the madman a chance to get hold of the Power.

“Cadsuane, Nynaeve, you’d better embrace the Source now,” he said. “We’re getting close.”

“I’ve been holding saidar since back on that hill,” Nynaeve told him. Cadsuane snorted and gave him a look that called him an idiot.

Rand stilled a grimace before it could begin. His skin felt no tingling, no goosebumps. They had masked their ability, and with it, shielded him from sensing the Power in them. Men had had few advantages over women when it came to channeling, but now they had lost those few while women retained all of theirs. Some of the Asha’-man were trying to puzzle out how to duplicate what Nacelle had created, to find a weave that would allow men to detect women’s weaves, but so far without success. Well, it would have to be dealt with by someone else. He had all he could manage on his plate at the moment.

The farms continued, some alone in a clearing, others clustered three or four or five together. If they followed the road far enough they would reach the village of King’s Crossing in a few miles, where a wooden bridge spanned a narrow river called the Reshalle, but well short of that the road passed by a large clearing marked by a pair of tall stone gateposts, though there were neither gates nor fence. A hundred paces or more beyond it, at the end of a mud-slicked clay lane, lay Lady Deidru’s manor, two stories of thatch-roofed gray stone saved from looking a large farmhouse only by the gateposts and the tall twinned doors at the front. The stables and outbuildings had the same practical appearance, sturdy and unornamented. There was no one in sight, no stablemen, no servant on her way to fetch eggs, no men in the fields that flanked the lane. The house’s tall chimneys stood smokeless. It did smell of a trap. But the countryside was quiet, the farmers unruffled. There was only one way to find out.

Rand turned Tai’daishar in through the gateposts, and the others followed. Min did not heed his warning. She pushed her gray in between Tai’daishar and Nynaeve’s mare and grinned at him. The bond carried nervousness, but the woman grinned!

When he was halfway to the house, the doors opened, and two women came out, one in dark gray, the other in blue with red panels on her breast and ankle-length skirts. Sunlight glinted off the silvery leash connecting them. Two more appeared, and two more, until three pairs stood in a row to either side of the door. As he reached the three-quarter point, another woman stepped into the doorway, very dark and very small, dressed in pleated white, her head covered by a transparent scarf that fell over her face. The Daughter of the Nine Moons. She had been described to Bashere right down to her shaven head. A tension in his shoulders he had not been aware of melted. That she was actually here did away with the possibility of a trap. The Seanchan would not risk the heir to their throne in anything so dangerous. He drew rein and dismounted.

“One of them is channeling.’’ Nynaeve said, just loudly enough for him to hear, as she climbed down from her saddle. “I can’t see anything. so she’s masked her ability and inverted the weave-and I wonder how the Seanchan learned tbatl-but she’s channeling. Only one; there isn’t enough for it to be two.” Her ter’angreal could not tell whether it was saidin or saidar being channeled, but it was unlikely to be a man.

I told you it was trap. Lews Therin groaned. I told you!

Rand pretended to check his saddle girth. “Can you tell which one?” he asked quietly. He still did not reach saidin. There was no telling what Lews Therin might do in these circumstances if he managed to grab control again. Logain was fiddling with his girth, too, and Narishma was watching Sandomere check one of the dapple’s hooves. They had heard. The small woman was waiting in the doorway, very still but no doubt impatient and likely offended by their apparent interest in their horses.

“No,” Cadsuane replied grimly. “But I can do something about it. Once we’re closer.” Her golden hair ornaments swayed as she tossed her cloak back as though unmasking a sword.

“Stay behind me,” he told Min, and to his relief, she nodded. Her face wore a small frown, and the bond carried worry. Not fear, though. She knew he would protect her.

Leaving the horses standing, he started toward the sul’dam and damane with Cadsuane and Nynaeve a little distance to either side of him. Logain, hand resting on his sword hilt as if that were his real weapon, strode along on the other side of Cadsuane, Narishma and Sandomere beyond Nynaeve. The small dark woman began walking toward them slowly, holding her pleated skirts up off the damp ground.

Abruptly, no more than ten paces away, she… flickered. For an instant, she was taller than most men. garbed all in black, surprise on her face, and though she still wore the veil, her head was covered with short-cut wavy black hair. Only an instant before the small woman returned, her step faltering as she let her white skirts fall, but another flicker, and the tall dark woman stood there, her face twisted in fury behind the veil. He recognized that face, though he had never seen it before. Lews Therin had, and that was enough.

“Semirhage.” he said in shock before he could stop the word, and suddenly everything seemed to happen at once.

He reached for the Source and found Lews Therin clawing for it. too. each of them jostling the other aside from reaching it. Semirhage flicked her hand, and a small ball of fire streaked toward him from her fingertips. She might have shouted something, an order. He could not leap aside: Min stood right behind him. Frantically trying to seize saidin. he flung up the hand holding the Dragon Scepter in desperation. The world seemed to explode in fire.

His cheek was pressed against the damp ground, he realized. Black flecks shimmered in his vision, and everything seemed faintly hazy, as if seen through water. Where was he? What had happened? His head felt stuffed with wool. Something was prodding him in the ribs. His sword hilt. The old wounds were a hard knot of pain just above that. Slowly, he realized he was looking at the Dragon Scepter, or what was left of it. The spearpoint and a few inches of charred haft lay three paces away. Small, dancing flames were consuming the long tassel. The Crown of Swords lay beyond it.

Abruptly it came to him that he could feel saidin being channeled. His skin was goose bumps all over from saidar being wielded. The manor house. Semirhage! He tried to push himself up, and collapsed with a harsh cry. Slowly he pulled a left arm that seemed all pain up where he could see his hand. See where his hand had been. Only a mangled, blackened ruin remained. A stub sticking out of a cuff that gave off thin streamers of smoke. But the Power was still being channeled around him. His people were fighting for their lives. They might be dying. Min! He struggled to rise, and fell again.

As though thinking of her had summoned her, Min was crouching over him. Trying to shield him with her body, he realized. The bond was full of compassion and pain. Not physical pain. He would have known if she had the smallest injury. She was feeling pain for him. “Lie still,” she said. “You’ve… You’ve been hurt.”

“I know,” he said hoarsely. Again, he reached for saidin. and for a wonder, this time Lews Therin did not try to interfere. The Power filled him, and that gave him the strength to push himself to his feet one-handed, preparing several very nasty weaves as he did so. Careless of his muddy coat. Min gripped his good arm as though she were trying to hold him upright. But the fighting was over.

Semirhage was standing stiffly with her arms at her sides, her skirts pressed against her legs, doubtless wrapped up in flows of Air. The hilt of one of Min’s knives stood out from her shoulder, and she must have been shielded, too, but her dark, beautiful face was contemptuous. She had been a prisoner before, briefly, during the War of the Shadow. She had escaped from high detention by frightening her jailers to the point that they actually smuggled her to freedom.

Others had been injured more seriously. A short dark sul’dam and tall pale-haired damane, linked by an adam, lay sprawled on the ground, staring up at the sun with already glazed eyes, and another pair were on their knees and clinging to one another, blood running down their faces and matting their hair. The other pairs stood as stiffly as Semirhage, and he could see the shields on three of the damane. They looked stunned. One of the sul’dam, a slender, dark-haired young woman, was weeping softly. Narishma’s face was bloodied, too. and his coat appeared singed. So did Sandomere’s, and a bone jutted through his left coatsleeve, white smeared with red, until Nynaeve firmly pulled his arm straight and guided the bone back into place. Grimacing in pain, he gave a guttural groan. She cupped her hands around his arm over the break, and moments later he was flexing his arm and moving his fingers and murmuring thanks. Logain appeared untouched. as did Nynaeve and Cadsuane, who was studying Semirhage the way a Brown might study an exotic animal never before seen.

Suddenly gateways began opening all around the manor house, spilling out mounted Asha’man and Aes Sedai and Warders, veiled Maidens and Bashere riding at the head of his horsemen. An Asha’man and Aes Sedai in a ring of two could make a gateway considerably larger than those Rand could alone. So someone had managed to give the signal, a red sunburst in the sky. Every Asha’man was full of saidin, and Rand assumed the Aes Sedai were equally full ofsaidar. The Maidens began spreading out into the trees.

“Aghan, Hamad, search the house!” Bashere shouted. “Matoun, form the lancers! They’ll be on us as soon as they can!” Two soldiers thrust their lances into the ground and leapt down to run inside drawing their swords while the others began arraying themselves in two ranks.

Ayako flung herself from her saddle and rushed to Sandomere not even bothering to hold her skirts out of the mud. Merise rode to Narishma before swinging down right in front of him and taking his head in her hands without a word. He jerked, his back arching and nearly pulling his head free, as she Healed him. She had little facility with Nynaeve’s method of Healing.

Ignoring the turmoil. Nynaeve gathered her skirts in bloodied hands and hurried to Rand. “Oh. Rand,” she said when she saw his arm, “I’m so sorry. I… I’ll do what I can, but I can’t fix it the way it was.” Her eyes were filled with anguish.

Wordlessly, he held out his left arm. It throbbed with agony. Strangely, he could still feel his hand. It seemed he should be able to make a fist with the fingers that were no longer there. His goose bumps intensified as she drew more deeply on saidar, the tendrils of smoke vanished from his cuff, and she gripped his arm above the wrist. His entire arm began tingling, and the pain drained away. Slowly, blackened skin was replaced by smooth skin that seemed to ooze down until it covered the small lump that had been the base of his hand. It was a miraculous thing to see. The scarlet-and-gold scaled dragon grew back, too, as much as it could, ending in a bit of the golden mane. He could still feel the whole hand.

“I’m so sorry.” Nynaeve said again. “Let me delve you for any other injuries.” She asked, but did not wait, of course. She reached up to cup his head between her hands, and a chill ran through him. “There’s something wrong with your eyes,” she said with a frown. “I’m afraid to try fixing that without studying on it. The smallest mistake could blind you. How well can you see? How many fingers am I holding up?”

“Two. I can see fine,” he lied. The black flecks were gone, but everything still seemed seen through water, and he wanted to squint against a sun that appeared to glare ten times brighter than it had. The old wounds in his side were knotted with pain.

Bashere climbed down from his compact bay in front of him and frowned at the stump of his left arm. Unbuckling his helmet, he took it off and held it under his arm. “Ac least you’re alive.” he said gruffly. “I’ve seen men hurt worse.”

“Me, too,” Rand said. “I’ll have to learn the sword all over again, though.” Bashere nodded. Most forms required two hands. Rand bene to pick up the crown of Illian, but Min released his arm and hurriedly handed the crown to him. He settled it on his head. “I’ll have to work out new ways to do everything.”

“You must be in shock,” Nynaeve said slowly. “You’ve just suffered a grievous injury. Rand. Maybe you’d better lie down. Lord Davram, have one your men bring a saddle to put his feet up.”

“He’s not in shock,’ Min said sadly. The bond was full of sadness. She had taken hold of his arm as if to hold him up again. “He lost a hand, but there’s nothing to do about it. so he’s left it behind already.”

“Wool-headed fool.’ Nynaeve muttered. Her hand, still smeared with Sandomere’s blood, drifted toward the thick braid hanging over her shoulder, but she yanked it back down. “You’ve been hurt badly. It’s all right to grieve. It’s all right to feel stunned. It’s normal!”

“I don’t have time,” he told her. Min’s sadness threatened to overflow the bond. Light, he was all right! Why did she feel so sad?

Nynaeve muttered half under her breath about “woolhead” and “fool” and “man-stubborn,” but she was not finished. “Those old wounds in your side have broken open,” she almost growled. “You aren’t bleeding badly, but you are bleeding. Maybe I can finally do something about them.”

But as hard as she tried-and she tried three times-nothing changed. He still felt the slow trickle of blood sliding down his ribs. The wounds were still a throbbing knot of pain. Finally, he pushed her hand gently away from his side.

“You’ve done what you can. Nynaeve. It’s enough.”

“Fool.” She did growl, this time. “How can it be enough when you’re still bleeding?”

“Who is the tall woman?” Bashere asked. He understood, at least. You did not waste time on what could not be mended. “They didn’t try passing her off as the Daughter of the Nine Moons, did they? Not after telling me she was a little thing.”

“They did,” Rand replied, and explained briefly.

“Semirhage?” Bashere muttered incredulously. “How can you be sure?”

“She’s Anath Dorje, not… not what you called her,” a honey-skinned sul’dam said loudly in a twangy drawl. Her dark eyes were tilted, and her hair was streaked with gray. She looked the eldest of the sul’dam. and the least frightened. It was not that she did not look afraid, but she controlled it well. “She’s the High Lady’s Truthspeaker.”

“Be silent, Falendre,” Semirhage said coldly, looking over her shoulder. Her gaze promised pain. The Lady of Pain was good at delivering on her promises. Prisoners had killed themselves on learning it was she who held them, men and women who managed to open a vein with teeth or fingernails.

Falendre did not seem to see it. though. “You don’t command me,” she said scornfully. “You’re not even so’jhin.”

“How can you be sure?” Cadsuane demanded. Those golden moons and stars, birds and fishes, swung as she moved her piercing gaze from Rand to Semirhage and back.

Semirhage saved him the effort of thinking up a lie. “He’s insane,” she said coolly. Standing there stiff as a statue, Min’s knife hilt still sticking out beside her collarbone and the front of her black dress glistening with blood, she might have been a queen on her throne. “Graendal could explain it better than I. Madness was her specialty. I will try, however. You know of people who hear voices in their heads? Sometimes, very rarely, the voices they hear are the voices of past lives. Lanfear claimed he knew things from our own Age, things only Lews Therin Telamon could know. Clearly, he is hearing Lews Therin’s voice. It makes no difference that his voice is real, however. In fact, that makes his situation worse. Even Graendal usually failed to achieve reintegration with someone who heard a real voice. I understand the descent into terminal madness can be… abrupt.” Her lips curved in a smile that never touched her dark eyes.

Were they looking at him differently? Logain’s face was a carved mask, unreadable. Bashere looked as though he still could not believe. Nynaeve’s mouth hung open, and her eyes were wide. The bond… For a long moment, the bond was full of… numbness. If Min turned away from him. he did not know whether he could stand it. If she turned away, it would be the best thing in the world for her. But compassion and determination as strong as mountains replaced numbness. and love so bright he thought he could have warmed his hands over it. Her grip on his arm tightened, and he tried to put a hand over hers. Too late, he remembered and snatched the nub of his hand away, but not before it had touched her. Nothing in the bond wavered by a hair.

Cadsuane moved closer to the taller woman and looked up at her. Facing one of the Forsaken seemed to faze her no more than facing the Dragon Reborn did. “You’re very calm for a prisoner. Rather than deny the charge, you give evidence against yourself.”

Semirhage shifted that cold smile from Rand to Cadsuane. “Why should I deny myself?” Pride dripped from every word. “I am Semirhage.” Someone gasped, and a number of the sul’dam and damane started trembling and weeping. One sul’dam, a pretty, yellow-haired woman, suddenly vomited down the front of herself, and another, stocky and dark, looked as if she might.

Cadsuane simply nodded. “I am Cadsuane Melaidhrin. I look forward to long talks with you.” Semirhage sneered. She had never lacked courage.

“We thought she was the High Lady,” Falendre said hurriedly, and haltingly at the same time. Her teeth seemed near to chattering, but she forced words out. “We thought we were being honored. She took us to a room in the Tarasin Palace where there was a… a hole in the air, and we stepped through to this place. I swear it on my eyes! We thought she was the High Lady.”

“So. no army rushing toward us,” Logain said. You could not have told from his tone whether he was relieved or disappointed. He bared an inch of his sword and thrust it back into its scabbard hard. “What do we do with them?” He jerked his head toward the sul’dam and damane. “Send them to Caemlyn like the others?”

“We send them back to Ebou Dar.” Rand said. Cadsuane turned to stare at him. Her face was a perfect mask of Aes Sedai serenity, yet he doubted she was anywhere near serene inside. The leashing of damane was an abomination that Aes Sedai took personally. Nynaeve was anything but serene. Angry-eyed, gripping her braid in a tight, blood-daubed fist, she opened her mouth, but he spoke over her. “I need this truce, Nynaeve, and taking these women prisoner is no way to get one. Don’t argue. That’s what they’d call it. including the damane, and you know it as well as I do. They can carry word that I want to meet the Daughter of the Nine Moons. The heir to the throne is the only one who can make a truce stand.”

“I still don’t like it,’ she said firmly. “We could free the damane. The others will do as well for carrying messages.” The damane who had not been weeping before burst into tears. Some of them cried to the sul’dam to save them. Nynaeve’s face took on sickly cast, but she threw up her hands and gave over arguing.

The two soldiers Bashere had sent into the house came out, young men who walked with a rolling motion, more accustomed to saddles than their own feet. Hamad had a luxuriant black beard that fell below the edge of his helmet and a scar down his face. Aghan wore thick mustaches like Bashere’s and carried a plain wooden box with no lid under his arm. They bowed to Bashere. free hands swinging their swords clear.

“The house is empty, my Lord.” Aghan said, “but there’s dried blood staining the carpets in several rooms. Looks like a slaughter yard, my Lord. I think whoever lived here is dead. This was sitting by the front door. It didn’t look like it belonged, so I brought it along.” He held out the box for inspection. Within lay coiled a’dam and a number of circlets made of segmented black metal, some large, some small.

Rand started to reach in with his left hand before he remembered. Min caught the movement and released his right arm so he could scoop up a handful of the black metal pieces. Nynaeve gasped.

“You know what these are?” he asked.

“They’re a’dam for men,” she said angrily. “Egeanin said she was going to drop the thing in the ocean! We trusted her, and she gave it to somebody to copy!”

Rand dropped the things back into the box. There were six of the larger circlets, and five of the silvery leashes. Semirhage had been prepared no matter who he brought with him. “She really thought she could capture all of us.” That thought should have made him shiver. He seemed to feel Lews Therin shiver. No one wanted to fall into Semirhage’s hands.

“She shouted for them to shield us,” Nynaeve said, “but they couldn’t because we were all holding the Power already. If we hadn’t been, if Cadsuane and I hadn’t had our ter’angreal, I don’t know what would have happened.” She did shiver.

He looked at the tall Forsaken, and she stared back, utterly composed. Utterly cold. Her reputation as a torturer loomed so large that it was easy to forget how dangerous she was otherwise. “Tie off the shields on the others so they’ll unravel in a few hours, and send them to somewhere near Ebou Dar.” For a moment, he thought Nynaeve was going to protest again, but she contented herself with giving her braid a strong tug and turning away.

“Who are you to ask for a meeting with the High Lady?” Falendre demanded. She emphasized the title for some reason.

“My name is Rand al’Thor. I’m the Dragon Reborn.” If they had wept at hearing Semirhage’s name, they wailed at hearing his.

Ashandarei slanted across his saddle. Mat sat Pips in the darkness among the trees and waited, surrounded by two thousand mounted crossbowmen. The sun was not long down, and events should be in motion. The Seanchan were going to be hit hard tonight in half a dozen places. Some small and some not so small, but hard in every case. Moonlight filtering through the branches overhead gave just enough illumination for him to make out Tuon’s shadowed face. She had insisted on staying with him, which meant Selucia was at her side on her dun, of course, glaring at him as usual. There were not enough moon-shadows to obscure that, unfortunately. Tuon must be unhappy about what was to happen tonight, yet nothing showed on her face. What was she thinking? Her expression was all the stern magistrate.

“Your scheme do entail a good deal of luck,” Teslyn said, not for the first time. Even shadowed, her face looked hard. She shifted in her saddle, adjusting her cloak. “It be coo late to change everything, but this part can be abandoned certainly.” He would have preferred to have Bethamin or Seta, neither bound by the Three Oaths and both knowing the weaves damane used for weapons, something that horrified the Aes Sedai. Not the weaves; just that Bethamin and Seta knew them. At least, he thought he would. Leilwin had flatly refused to fight any Seanchan except to defend herself. Bethamin and Seta might have done the same, or found at the last minute that they could not act against their countrymen. In any case, the Aes Sedai had rejected allowing the two women to be involved, and neither had opened her mouth once that was said. That pair were too meek around Aes Sedai to say boo to a goose.

“Grace favor you, Teslyn Sedai. but Lord Mat is lucky,” Captain Mandevwin said. The stocky one-eyed man had been with the Band since the first days in Cairhien. and he had earned the gray streaks in his hair, hidden now beneath his green-painted helmet, an open-faced footman’s helmet, in battles against Tear and Andor before that. “I remember times we were outnumbered, with enemies on every side, and he danced the Band around them. Not to slip away, mind, but to beat them. Beautiful battles.”

“A beautiful battle is one you don’t have to fight,” Mat said, more sharply than he intended. He did not like battles. You could get holes poked in you in a battle. He just kept getting caught in them, that was all. Most of that dancing around had been trying to slip away. But there would be no slipping away tonight, or for many days to come. “Our part of it is important, Teslyn.” What was keeping Aludra, burn her? The attack at the supply camp must be under way already, just strong enough that the soldiers defending it would think they could hold until help arrived, strong enough to make them sure they needed help. The others would be full strength from the start, to overwhelm the defenders before they knew what was on them. “I mean to bloody the Seanchan. bloody them so hard and fast and often that they’re reacting to what we’re doing instead of making their own plans.” As soon as the words left his tongue he wished he had phrased that another way.

Tuon leaned close to Selucia. and the taller woman put her scarf-covered head down to exchange whispers. It was too dark for their bloody finger-talk, but he could not hear a word they were saying. He could imagine. She had promised not to betray him. and that had to cover trying to betray his plans, yet she must wish she had that promise back. He should have left her with Reimon or one of the others. That would have been safer than letting her stay with him. He could have if he had tied her up, her and Selucia both. And probably Setalle as well. That bloody woman still took Tuon’s side every time.

Mandevwin’s bay stamped a hoof, and he patted the animal’s neck with a gauntleted hand. “You cannot deny there is battle luck, when you find a weakness in your enemy’s lines that you never expected, that should not be there, when you find him arrayed to defend against attack from the north only you are coming from the south. Battle luck rides on your shoulder, my Lord. I have seen it.”

Mat grunted and resettled his hat on his head irritably. For every time a banner got lost and blundered into a bloody chink in the enemy’s defenses, there were ten when it just was not bloody where you expected when you bloody well needed it. That was the truth of battle luck.

“One green nightflower,” a man called from above. “Two! Both green!” Scrapings told of him climbing down hurriedly.

Mat heaved a small sigh of relief. The raken was away and headed west. He had counted on that-the nearest large body of soldiers loyal to the Seanchan lay west-and even cheated by riding as far west as he dared. Just because you were sure your opponent would react in a certain way did not mean he would. Reimon would be overrunning the supply camp any minute, smothering the defenders with ten times their number and securing much-needed provisions.

“Go, Vanin,” he said, and the fat man dug his heels in, sending his dun off into the night at a canter. He could not outpace the raken, but so long as he brought word in time… “Time to move, Mandevwin.”

A lean fellow dropped the last distance from a lower limb, carefully cradling a looking glass that he handed up to the Cairhienin.

“Get mounted, Londraed.” Mandevwin said, stuffing the looking glass into the cylindrical leather case tied to his saddle. “Connl. form the men by fours.”

A short ride took them to a narrow hard-packed road, winding through low hills, that Mat had avoided earlier. There were few farms and fewer villages in this area, but he did not want to spread rumors of large parties of armed men. Not until he wanted them to spread, anyway. Now he needed speed, and rumor could not outrun him in tonight’s business. Most of the farmhouses they trotted by were dark shapes in the moonlight, lamps and candles already extinguished. The thud of hooves and the creak of saddle leather were the only sounds aside from the occasional thin, reedy cry of some night bird or an owl’s hooting, but two thousand or so horses made a fair amount of noise. They passed through a small village where only a handful of thatch-roofed houses and the tiny stone inn showed any light, but people stuck their heads out of doors and windows to gape. Doubtless they thought they were seeing soldiers loyal to the Seanchan. There seemed to be few of any other kind remaining in most of Altara. Somebody raised a cheer, but he was a lone voice.

Mat rode alongside Mandevwin with Tuon and the other women behind, and now and then he looked over his shoulder. Not to make sure she was still there. Strange as it was, he had no doubt she would keep her word not to escape, even now. And not to make sure she was keeping up. The razor had an easy stride, and she rode well. Pips could not have outrun Akein had he tried. No, he just liked looking at her, even by moonlight. Maybe especially by moonlight. He had tried kissing her again the night before, and she had punched him in the side so hard that at first he thought she had broken one of his shortribs. But she had kissed him just before they started out this evening. Only once, and said not to be greedy when he attempted a second. The woman melted in his arms while he was kissing her, and turned to ice the moment she stepped back. What was he to make of her? A large owl passed overhead, wings flapping silently. Would she see some omen in that? Probably.

He should not be spending so much time thinking about her, not tonight. In truth, he was depending on luck to some extent. The three thousand lancers Vanin had found, mostly Altarans with a few Sean-chan, might or might not be those Master Roidelle had marked on his map, though they had not been too far from where he placed them, but there was no telling for sure in which direction they had moved since. Northeast, almost certainly, toward the Malvide Narrows, and the Molvaine Gap beyond. It seemed that except for the last stretch, the Seanchan had taken to avoiding the Lugard Road for moving soldiers, doubtless to conceal their numbers and destinations in the country roads. Certain was not absolutely sure, however. If they had not moved too far, this was the road they would use to reach that supply camp. If. But if they had ridden farther than he expected, they might use another road. No danger there; just a wasted night. Their commander might decide to cut straight across the hills, too. That could prove nasty if he decided to join this road at the wrong point.

About four miles beyond the village, they came to a place where two gently sloping hills flanked the road, and he called a halt. Master Roidelle’s own maps were fine, but those he had from other men were the work of masters, too. Roidelle acquired only the best. Mat recognized this spot as if he had seen it before.

Mandevwin wheeled his horse around. “Admar, Eyndel, take your men up the north slope. Madwin, Dongal, the south slope. One man in four to hold horses.”

“Hobble the horses,’ Mat said, “and put the feedbags on to stop whinnying.” They were facing lancers. If it all turned sour and they tried to run, those lancers would ride them down like they were hunting wild pigs. A crossbow was no good from horseback, especially if you were trying to get away. They had to win here.

The Cairhienin stared at him, any expression hidden by the face-bars of his helmet, but he did not hesitate. “Hobble the horses and put on their nosebags.” he ordered. “Every man on the line.”

“Tell off some to keep watch north and south,” Mat told him. “Battle luck can run against you as easily as in your favor.” Mandevwin nodded and gave the order.

The crossbowmen divided and rode up the thinly treed slopes, their dark coats and dull green armor fading into the shadows. Burnished armor was all very well for parades, but it could reflect moonlight as well as sunlight. According to Talmanes, the hard part had been convincing the lancers to give up their bright breastplates and the nobles their silvering and gilding. The foot had seen sense straight off. For a time there was the rustle of men and horses moving across the mulch, moving through brush, but finally silence fell. From the road, Mat could not have told there was anyone on either slope. Now he just had to wait.

Tuon and Selucia kept him company, and so did Teslyn. A gusting breeze had sprung up from the west that tugged at cloaks, but of course, Aes Sedai could ignore such things, though Teslyn held hers shut. Selucia let the gusts take her cloak where it would, oddly, but Tuon took to holding hers closed with one hand.

“You might be more comfortable among the trees,” he told her. “They’ll cut the wind.’’

For a moment, she shook with silent laughter. “I’m enjoying watching you take your ease on your hilltop,” she drawled.

Mat blinked. Hilltop? He was sitting Pips in the middle of the bloody road with flaming gusts cutting through his coat like winter was coming back. What was she talking about, hilltop?

“Have a care with Joline,” Teslyn said, suddenly and unexpectedly. “She be… childish… in some ways, and you do fascinate her the way a shiny new toy do fascinate a child. She will bond you if she can decide how to convince you to agree. Perhaps even if you do no realize you be agreeing.’’

He opened his mouth to say there was no bloody flaming chance of that, but Tuon spoke first.

“She cannot have him,” she said sharply. Drawing a breath, she went on in amused tones. “Toy belongs to me. Until I am through playing with him. But even then, I won’t give him to a marath’damane. You understand me, Tessi? You tell Rosi that. That’s the name I intended to give her. You can tell her that, too.”

The sharp gusts might not have affected Teslyn, but she shivered at hearing her damane name. Aes Sedai serenity vanished as rage contorted her face. “What I do understand-!”

“Give over!” Mat cut in. “Both of you. I’m in no mood to listen to the pair of you trying to jab each other with needles.” Teslyn stared at him, indignation plain even by moonlight.

“Why, Toy,” Tuon said brightly, “you’re being masterful again.”

She leaned over to Selucia and whispered something that made the bo-somy woman give a loud guffaw.

Hunching his shoulders and pulling his cloak around him, he leaned on the high pommel of his saddle and watched the night for Vanin. Women! He would give up all of his luck-well, half-if he could understand women.

“What do you think you can achieve with raids and ambushes?” Teslyn said, again not for the first time. “The Seanchan will only send enough soldiers to hunt you down.” She and Joline had kept trying to stick their noses into his planning, and so had Edesina to a lesser extent, until he chased them away. Aes Sedai thought they knew everything, and while Joline at least did know something of war, he had not needed advice. Aes Sedai advice sounded an awful lot like telling you what to do. This time, he decided to answer her.

“I’m counting on them sending more soldiers, Teslyn,” he said, still watching for Vanin. “The whole army they have in the Molvaine Gap, in fact. Enough of it, anyway. They’re more likely to use that than any other. Everything Thom and Juilin picked up says their big push is aimed at Illian. I think the army in the Gap is to guard against anything coming at them out of Murandy or Andor. But they’re the stopper in the jar for us. I mean to pull that stopper out so we can pass through.”

After several minutes of silence, he looked over his shoulder. The three women were just sitting their horses and watching him. He wished he had enough light to make out their expressions. Why were they bloody staring? He settled back to looking for Vanin. yet it seemed he could feel their eyes on his back.

Perhaps two hours by the shifting of the fat crescent moon went by. with the wind slowly picking up strength. It was enough to take the night beyond cool into cold. Periodically he tried to make the women take shelter among the trees, but they resisted stubbornly. He had to remain, to catch Vanin without having to shout-the lancers would be close behind the man; perhaps very close if their commander was a fool-but they did not. He suspected that Teslyn refused because Tuon and Selucia did. That made no sense, but there it was. As for why Tuon refused, he could not have said unless it was because she liked to listen to him arguing himself hoarse.

Eventually the wind brought the sound of a running horse, and he sat up straight in his saddle. Vanin’s dun cantered out of the night, the bulky man as always an improbable sight in a saddle.

Vanin drew rein and spat through a gap in his teeth. “They’re a mile or so behind me, but there’s maybe a thousand more than there was this morning. Whoever’s in charge knows his business. They’re pushing hard without blowing their horses.”

“If you be outnumbered two to one.” Teslyn said, “perhaps you will reconsider-”

“I don’t intend to give them a stand-up fight,” Mat broke in. “And I can’t afford to leave four thousand lancers loose to make trouble for me. Let’s join Mandevwin.”

The kneeling crossbowmen on the slope of the northern hill made no sound when he rode through their line with the women and Vanin, just shuffled aside to let them through. He would have preferred at least two ranks, but he needed to cover a wide front. The sparse trees did cut the wind, but not by much, and most of the men were huddled in their cloaks. Still, every crossbow he could see was drawn, with a bolt in place. Mandevwin had seen Vanin arrive and knew what it meant.

The Cairhienin was pacing just behind the line until Mat appeared and swung down from Pips. Mandevwin was relieved to hear that he no longer needed to keep a watch to his rear. He merely nodded thoughtfully at hearing of a thousand more lancers than expected and sent a man racing off to bring the watchers down from the crest to take their places in the line. If Mat Cauthon took it in stride, so would he. Mat had forgotten that about the Band. They trusted him absolutely. Once, that had almost made him break out in a rash. Tonight, he was glad of it.

An owl hooted twice, somewhere behind him, and Tuon sighed.

“Is there an omen in that?” he asked, just for something to say.

“I’m glad you are finally taking an interest. Toy. Perhaps I will be able to educate you yet.” Her eyes were liquid in the moonlight. “An owl hooting twice means someone will die soon.” Well, that put a bloody end to conversation.

Soon enough, the Seanchan appeared, four abreast and leading their horses at a trot, lances in hand. Vanin had been right about their commander knowing his job. Cantered for a time then led at a trot, horses could cover a lot of ground quickly. Fools tried to gallop long distances and ended with dead or crippled horses. Only the first forty or so wore the segmented armor and strange helmets of Seanchan. A pity, that. He had no idea how the Seanchan would feel about casualties to their Altaran allies. Losses to their own would catch notice, though.

When the middle of the column was right in front of him, a deep voice on the road suddenly shouted, “Banner! Halt!” Those two words carried the familiar slurred drawl of the Seanchan. The men in segmented armor stopped sharply. The others straggled to a halt.

Mat drew breath. Now that had to be ta’veren work. They could hardly have been better placed if he had given the order himself. He rested a hand on Teslyn’s shoulder. She flinched slightly, but he needed to get her attention quietly.

“Banner!” the deep voice shouted. “Mount!” Below, soldiers moved to obey.

“Now,” Mat said quietly.

The foxhead went cold on his chest, and suddenly a ball of red light was floating high above the road, bathing the soldiers below in an unearthly glow. They had only a heartbeat to gape. Along the line below Mat, a thousand crossbow strings gave what sounded like one loud snap, and a thousand bolts streaked into the formation, punching through breastplates at that short range, knocking men from their feet, sending horses rearing and screaming, just as a thousand more struck from the other side. Not every shot struck squarely, but that hardly mattered with a heavy crossbow. Men went down with shattered legs, with legs ripped half off. Men clutched at the stumps of ruined arms trying to stem the flow of blood. Men screamed as loudly as the horses.

He watched a crossbowman nearby as the fellow bent to fasten the paired hooks of the bulky, boxlike crank, hanging from a strap at the front of his belt, to his crossbow string. As the man straightened, the cord streamed out of the crank, but once he was erect, he set the crank on the butt of the upended crossbow, moved a small lever on the side of the box, and began to work the handles. Three quick turns with a rough whirring sound, and the string caught on the latch.

’Into the trees!” the deep voice shouted. “Close with them before they can reload! Move!”

Some tried to mount, to ride into the attack, and others dropped reins and lances to draw swords. None made it as far as the trees. Two thousand more bolts slashed into them, cutting men down, punching through men to kill men behind or topple horses. On the hillside, men began working their cranks furiously, but there was no need. On the road, a horse kicked feebly here and there. The only men moving were frantically trying to use whatever they had to hand for tourniquets to keep from bleeding to death. The wind brought the sound of running horses. Some might have riders. There were no more shouts from the deep voice.

“Mandevwin,” Mat shouted, “we’re done here. Mount the men. We have places to be.”

“You must stay to offer aid,” Teslyn said firmly. “The rules of war do demand it.”

“This is a new kind of war,” he told her harshly. Light, it was silent on the road, but he could still hear the screaming. “They’ll have to wait for their own to give them aid.”

Tuon murmured something half under her breath. He thought it was, “A lion can have no mercy,” but that was ridiculous.

Gathering his men, he led them down the north side of the hill. There was no need to let the survivors see how many they were. In a few hours they would join up with the men from the other hill, and in a few hours more, with Carlomin. Before sunrise they were going to hit the Seanchan again. He intended to make them run to pull that bloody stopper for him.

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